60 Voices: Charles Black and Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis on the fight for civil rights

"When we talk about human rights, we’re talking about not only political rights like the right to vote and civil rights like the right to equal protection and non-discrimination, but also economic rights—the right to unionize, social rights, the right to education, cultural rights, the right to speak your own language."


Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis is executive director and a professor of human rights at Freedom University, an underground school for undocumented students in Atlanta. She grew up in rural Minnesota, in a biracial Japanese-Slovak household, and is a graduate of UGA, with a PhD from Emory University, where she studied interracial labor movements and human rights. Soltis has placed a human-rights framework at the center of Freedom University’s mission and connects undocumented youth to veterans of the Black Freedom Movement. She works to advance the undocumented student movement by educating and mentoring a new generation of undocumented freedom fighters and advocating for fair admissions policies in higher education across the United States.

Charles Black is a living legend of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta. A Miami native and Morehouse College alumnus, he served as chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement and was one of just eight students taught at Morehouse by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to being involved in strategy and organization of the Civil Rights Movement, Black has served Atlanta throughout his life, including as editor of the Atlanta Inquirer newspaper. He continues to lead as a mentor to young community and political activists, as a speaker on civil and human rights around the country, and as chairman of the board of advisors at Freedom University.

Soltis and Black got together to talk about what different generations of activists can learn from each other just days after a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta-area spas, six of whom were of Asian descent. As they spoke of the continued fight for human and civil rights in Atlanta and beyond, the killings were fresh on the minds of the two friends, separated by age, race, and geographic origins but united in their hopes for a more perfect city and more unified front against inequality and injustice.

CB: I have to tell you who you have on this line here: probably the most valuable human being in a very long time. You know, like, maybe since Jesus. She’s my favorite person, but let me tell you she is one of the smartest people in the world. She’s one of the most talented people in the world. She’s the most dedicated person in the world. She has more heart than anybody in the world. And, you know, the beauty of God speaks for itself.

LES: Thanks for that intro, Charles. Now, I want to let you know who you have on the line here.

CB: Now don’t listen to anything she says. It’s not important.

LES: Charles Arthur Black: Born on October 6, 1940. Star debater. Born in Miami, went to Morehouse College. What you may not know about him is he has continued his struggle and leadership in human rights work, unapologetically and continuously, probably since he was born, but especially since his days in the Student Movement. He’s been doing this throughout. He is a mentor to so many young folks, and quasi-young folks like me. He really lives out human rights, and a dedication to human rights without exception, regardless of your citizenship, status, race, gender, religion, etc. If you’re a human being, he loves you.

CB: I love her more.

LES: Charles and I met at a panel I put together as a grad student at Emory, bringing in veterans of the Atlanta Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I studied human rights and social movements as a PhD student. And I thought it was so critical that my generation learn from the activists who came before us. That is when Charles and I became friends, about 12 or 13 years ago, and we have been constant friends. But we also challenge one another, as not only different in race and gender and generation, but with really different life experiences. What I love is that through true dialogue you can really come to understand and have deep respect and love for people who, on the outside, may look very different from you.

I came into this work studying human rights and international human rights academically. But I was transformed when I learned about farmworkers in South Florida. When we talk about human rights, we’re talking about not only political rights like the right to vote and civil rights like the right to equal protection and non-discrimination, but also economic rights—the right to unionize, social rights, the right to education, cultural rights, the right to speak your own language. That is what we mean by human rights: the full spectrum of human rights.

The farmworkers in South Florida were coming from Mayan communities in Guatemala, in southern Mexico, and Haiti, they were interracial. They were bringing the knowledge and genius they had of organizing their home countries. But they were using a human rights framework, and they were studying Dr. King. They were studying Black youth strategies in the South. They were learning from the people who came before them. So, while I say I got my degrees from the University of Georgia and Emory University, I got my education in the tomato fields of South Florida.

In 2011, these farmers were coming to Atlanta to go on a tour. And because they were students of King, nonviolent civil disobedience, and the Atlanta Student Movement, they wanted a tour of Morehouse and Spelman. They said, “Do you know someone who might be able to give us a tour?” And I said, “Yes!” So, I invited my friend Charles, and he literally boarded a bus filled with migrant farmworkers and took them on a tour of Atlanta. For him to be able to say, “That’s City Hall; I helped desegregate it. And this is the street where we marched and we did a sit in… This is where we used to meet.” I remember the farmworkers were learning so much, and they really gave Charles the deep respect he deserves. It was so beautiful to see this interracial dialogue across citizenship and occupations.

This appeal for human rights is what made me reach out to Charles, and Lonnie King, and Constance Curry, and John Lewis. And we lost three of them just in the last two years. But they live on—not just in movement lore, but in all of the students they had and all the lives they touched. And that includes undocumented students in Atlanta today, who have to meet underground because they are banned from the public universities that these same Freedom Fighters desegregated, 60 years before.

Yesterday, actually, I stopped by the Gold Spa, one of the three massage parlors that was targeted. I was really moved and heartened to see not just so many flowers, but so many messages of interracial solidarity. There was one big sign that said “Black + Asian Solidarity.” There was another quote by Assata Shakur, which is, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win, and most importantly, we must love each other and support each other.” And there were so many Black youth present. That gave me hope, not just that the diverse community of Atlanta has each other’s back, but also that young people are pointing us in the right direction, as always, and are really the first to step up and show support.

It was extremely timely that [the shootings were on] the same day Stop AAPI Hate published their report on hate incidents and hate crimes against Asians. They found that there were over 3,800 incidents in 2020, and interestingly about 68 percent of them were against women. It’s important to recognize that this act of violence wasn’t simply racial; it was also based in misogyny. And it points to the different ways people experience racism. When it’s combined with gender, sexuality, or age, it can be different. And what may have not been reported on is that many of these Asian women who were targeted were in their 60s and 70s. And for whatever reason that made it hurt more.

It’s fascinating that hate crimes are generally reported and prosecuted based on race, without taking into account the type of racism that Asians and Latinx people face—which is often nativist in language. Go back to where you came from, right? Hate against Asian Americans often includes this nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, which sometimes isn’t included under how we conceive of hate crimes. And, of course, this comes out of a long history of racialized exclusion from citizenship in the U.S. For Chinese that was 1882 through 1943. Other Asians were actually racially excluded from citizenship until 1952. And most people in the U.S. don’t recognize that history.

This hostility is often rooted in a history of U.S. military involvement and wars in Asian countries, which doesn’t make it worse or better. It’s just different in the type of hate crimes and anti-Asian violence that Asians experience. Some people call it a kind of patriotic racism. And we can’t ignore that the U.S. has been in a near-perpetual state of war since the 1940s with Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

One last point I want to make is this idea of the “model minority” myth, which is this misguided perception of some type of universal success among Asian Americans. This is actually a modern “divide and conquer” strategy, a tool of white supremacy, that pits groups against each other. It places value on Asians’ proximity to whiteness. Sometimes it’s used to shame other racial groups for maybe not performing like these perceived successes among Asian Americans. But it also makes invisible the poverty within Asian American communities, particularly in South Asian and Southeast Asian communities. And this helps explain, oftentimes, the non-white violence against Asians as well. As we know, looking at New York in particular, the majority of hate crimes against Asians were by other people of color. And that’s heartbreaking. But understanding this “model minority” myth helps us understand the unique kind of violence that Asians experience.

CB: One thing we all should know by now is that bigots and bullies are always cowards. Almost invariably, they have to operate in the dark of night, or in large groups, or attack somebody from behind, or somebody who is more vulnerable because of their age, or their gender. So it’s not surprising to me that most of the folks who’ve been attacked have been female and elderly people because bigots are cowards. And they’re also usually very stupid, which is why they get caught most of the time, and I’m glad about that part.

We all have to recognize the fact that this “otherness” foolishness can include any of us at some point in time. Today, it’s Asians. It’s always Blacks and browns. But then it’s Jews, Muslims, people who practice other religions, people who love folk of the same gender, folk who worship differently. I mean, you know, there’s always this “otherness.”

LES: And something that Charles has always reminded me of is that “bigots have babies.” And so, when people say that it will be fine 30, 40 years from now, we see that racism transforms over time, bigotry transforms over time. That’s why freedom is a constant struggle, right? Because oppression is always changing. And bigots have babies.

Everyone cries out when they’re in pain. Some get hurt, and some don’t. I think it’s important to remember how Asians are racialized in the U.S. with constant otherness. Only a third of Asians in Atlanta were born in the U.S. Another third are naturalized, another third have a more vulnerable immigration status. That impacts fears of protesting. We need to be realistic about that as well. I think crying out when you’re four percent of the population is scary. And that is why that interracial solidarity is so important.

CB: It’s extremely important that we cry out when it’s not us that are the targets. Don’t wait for it to be your turn because these are your people. We all need to cry out when there’s evil and bigotry and wrong in our society.

I think it was [John Wesley Dobbs] who talked about the importance of “the three B’s”: the Book, the Ballot, and the Buck. It was those three things that made the difference during the 60s, when we changed this town. When Rich’s department store lost $10 million over the Christmas holiday in 1960, they said, Oh, you hadn’t explained it to me like that, people! They were willing then to sign an agreement to desegregate their facilities. But these folk don’t do these things out of the goodness of their heart. They’re influenced by your ability to vote them in or out of office, and your ability to withhold your economic strength from them. Those are the things that make the difference.

LES: What my generation has to learn from Charles’s generation: We can learn how to organize. We can learn how to adapt the things they did well. We can learn about human rights framing. The importance of writing your demands, and of including everyone. SNCC was famous, when they went down to Freedom Summer in 1964, for including anyone who had a passion for justice. It was led by Black youth, but there were also white students, Asian students, Latinx students, who went down not just to register voters, and not just to create freedom schools, but to create leadership from the grassroots. That’s the inspiration that I take.

In terms of how we are doing as a city, one thing I want to focus on is our report card on immigration. Georgia is widely considered to be the worst state to be an undocumented immigrant in for many reasons. We’re only one of three states to have a type of admissions ban in our public university system against undocumented young people. The only three states in the entire country are South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. And Georgia is considered the worst because we also ban students with DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, who have a temporary social security number, pay state and federal taxes, have a driver’s license. But they’re banned from the University of Georgia. They’re banned from Georgia Tech. They’re banned from Georgia College and State University.

CB: What’s going to make a difference, of course, is that people who can vote, vote. We need to be aware of the issues and the candidates, what they stand for, who they are, and vote for the best of them. Don’t wait to see who’s going to get in a race. Identify the people that you think should represent you, and help them to prepare themselves, and to qualify and campaign and win the seats in Congress and City Hall, or wherever else, so that you know that you are represented by people that you already know are representative of you. That’s what’s going to make all the difference. We have to do whatever we can to step up to the suppression of voter opportunities, and also the gerrymandering of office holders choosing their voters, as opposed to the voters choosing their office hours. That’s what’s going make all the difference in a state like Georgia and anywhere else.

LES: Voting rights are critical. Reducing voter suppression is critical—expanding the right to vote and to make it easier, not harder. These are basic concepts of a vibrant, multiracial, pluralistic democracy. You want as many people who can vote to vote, not to make it harder. Sometimes when people think about voting rights, it does not include immigrants or undocumented immigrants, recognizing federal policy that only lets citizens vote. But remember, historically, that citizenship is constructed. For almost 250 years, Black people on this soil did not have the right to vote. Through Jim Crow, they had the right to vote but were barred from it. What does citizenship really mean? To expand that idea of citizenship to people, and to increase participation, that’s a good thing for our society and a good thing for our democracy.

There are 300,000 undocumented immigrants who work and pay taxes in Georgia. Taxation without representation seems to undermine some of the fundamental values on which this country was built.

CB: That’s why I always talk about human rights as opposed to all rights, because civil rights can be voted in and out of existence. But our human rights are inalienable rights that we have by virtue of our birth, by virtue of our humanity. For a very long time, as Emiko just said, Black folk, even those born in this country, had no right to vote, and women only got the right to vote 100 years ago, last year. Even white women couldn’t vote. And they were born here, and you know, their parents were the ones who stole the land in first place! It’s something that is decided by those who have the power. That’s why we have to have more say in who has the power, and then choose those folks who will represent us.

LES: Can I thank you so much for bringing this up, Charles? Oftentimes we learn these histories in silos, if we even learn these histories at all. Race and immigration are intertwined in this country and cannot be understood separately from one another. Thinking about the Civil War and Reconstruction, hopefully people are familiar with the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, and 15th Amendment, which came out during Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery except as punishment for a crime gave the justification for the creation of our modern criminal justice system. The 14th Amendment was birthright citizenship. Remember that the equal protection and due process clauses protect people. You may not deny to any person equal protection and due process. It is not “citizen,” it is “person.” And that part of the 14th amendment was the basis for so many human rights struggles afterwards. And the 15th Amendment, the right of citizens to vote. It’s vital that we move beyond a Black and white duality of understanding race, not just in the South, but in the country. The first restrictive immigration law in the United States was the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese women from entering the United States. So, when we’re talking about anti-Asian violence today, it has a rich history. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship by birth, and it turns out that Chinese immigrant women were giving birth to U.S. citizens. So that first act was banning Chinese women, even though we needed Chinese laborers to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Atlanta magazine: What would you like to see happen in an ideal future here in Atlanta?

CB: I’ll tell you what I’d like to see, which would be a better world: I’d like to see more women in charge. I like to see diversity of people with respect to ethnicity, and socialization, and education, and economic status, all in positions of representation. That way we will have the populace represented. Everybody ought to be represented. That’s the kind of dream that I want to see—a totally diverse representation of the populace at all levels of government authority.

LES: I would love to see an Atlanta where your race does not determine if you live or die, whether by acts of violence or access to health care. I would like to see an Atlanta where no matter which zip code you live in, you have access to good schools to help you fulfill your full human potential. I would like to see that the richness and diversity of Atlanta is represented at all levels of our government. And I would love to see everyone’s full political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights—the full spectrum of human rights—respected and fulfilled, and an Atlanta in which our air is clean. And that our water is clean. And to be a true international city, we must welcome all with open arms.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.